Trick or Treat? Managers. Give ‘Em a Break or Give ‘Em Hell?

Trick or Treat? Managers: Give ‘Em A Break or Give ‘Em Hell?

Well you would hope the former. Career progression is a wonderful thing, people are motivated by a sense of doing well, the inevitable uplift in salary helps and of course is goes without saying that the new job title is a definite motivator in terms of self esteem and sense of achievement. Well, that is the plan anyway. Occasionally and in some cases quite often, something happens to a person when you stick the word ‘manager’ onto their job title.  It is an intangible ‘something’, yet it has very tangible physical and mental manifestations that can affect the people who work for them, and affect the direct output of the resulting tasks.  Sometimes this is a good thing and other times not.

What is your manager like? Are they OK, trust them do you? How much input do they have on your day-to-day life? What do you expect from them? And do they know this? Can you compare them to anyone else perhaps? Would you call them a ’manager’ or a ‘leader’? Lots of questions with a ton of possible answers, but let’s start with a look at things from their point of view.

The Manager is Born.

There is no rule book for the new manager, yes there are lots of theories out there, some more robust than others, and often these new managers can feel all at sea when embarking on their managerial journey. When anyone starts the process of managing people, often the transition from being a colleague or mate to being the manager is big step. The pressure that is put on them in the form of responsibility is huge, not to mention all that bollocky ‘management speak’ they have to learn.  Motivation. Leadership. Delegation. Objective Setting. Who the hell is Maslow anyway? Becoming a manager is a bit like becoming a parent, but without the pregnancy part as a run up to get used to the idea first. You just have this new ‘family’ dropped on you. Sometimes it can be a ‘family’ of one or two, others can inherit a whole brood.  Whichever way you slice it, a new manager can feel like a single parent, and quite simply there isn’t enough of them to go around, and do the day job at the same time.  Of course, all this talk of ‘instant families’ might be all well and good, but God forbid you be mistaken for being patronising in any way shape or form. Management God say patronising not good.  On that, I am increasingly hearing a new word creeping into feedback about managers. Along with ‘patronising’ or ‘condescending’ we now have ‘disrepsecting’.  Yes my eyes rolled toward the ceiling when I first heard it too, but there it is.  Quite often the people accusing someone of ‘disrespect’ could not even define respect let alone this new word, which like many other buzz words has become somewhat mainstream and misused in our language.

The new manager starts with great intentions, promising the team “Nothing will change, everything will still be the same.” Or “I am still the same person I always was, we can still have a laugh.” Or even “Lots of things might change, but one thing I will assure you is that whatever happens I will make sure you are all kept informed.”  Ahh sweet.  It sounds marvellous doesn’t it? However the reality is that none of this happens, because when it comes to delivering bad news, putting pressure on people to perform, picking people up on any bad habits or heaven forefend having to discipline or sack someone, these good intentions all fly out of the window, why? Because the new manager is not a mate anymore, they are a manager.  So then we witness the manager becoming the enemy, someone who cannot be trusted and is, by their own hand suddenly distanced from the team.  Poor thing.

As employees we must try to give them a break though, they are doing a job, to the best of their ability, often employers (the managers manager) put people into management positions just because they are good at their current role, or because they feel that is the next natural step for them, and because human nature says ‘we must progress’ they step up.  Add to this a simple lack of development in real management skills and bosh, one struggling manager.

What do managers need to be successful and have a fighting chance?

1-   An understanding of task management, how to get the job done and when it should be done by.

2-   The ability to get the right people to do the right job, by identifying who is good at what skill.

3-   Making sure that the team are getting along, working together, understanding what each other is doing and having clear goals put into place.

4-   Respecting peoples right to a life outside of work.

5-   Being able to relay information back to support and foster continued good work.

6-   Being prepared to lead by example and get their hands dirty.

7-   A true understanding of the big picture, without losing touch with reality.

The Behavioural Effects Ramble.

Lets turn things around a bit. Why do managers get it wrong? If, as an employee you look at this list above, and apply the polar opposite to each point, you can probably identify one or more reasons why you maybe don’t enjoy a good relationship with your manager. A poor manager is often critiqued because of the way they communicate, or often in the way they don’t communicate maybe because they are unapproachable or precious, maybe too familiar or driven by their hunger for power. Remember I mentioned that ‘something’ that happens when you put the word ‘manager’ on someone’s job title, well guess what happens if you give them ‘senior manager’? Oh and I will only tell you to step away with no sudden hand movements, loud noises or gestures when observing what happens when the word ‘Director’ is added!!

If it weren’t so unsettling it would be humorous really, watching these poor managers becoming a victim of their own ambition.  Gradually moving away from the ‘real world’ mixing only with their fellow peer groups as the anything beneath their level is, well, ‘below’. Well, anyway that is how they make their teams feel. They create ‘unrealistic expectations’ on those they leave behind, who in turn often end up victims of stress and anxiety.  Most employees only want to be listened to and to be developed, keep it this simple and magic can happen, however things get complicated, political and out of control and before you know it people leave, citing ‘career advancement’, when really they have a relationship with their manager that has disintegrated out of all recognition, and to think they were once mates who drank together down the pub.

Techrepublic recently published the 10 signs of incompetent managers. These all make sense, you should check them out, but somehow they appear to me to be unavoidable traps that managers fall into. An example of this would be ‘secrecy’. The need to keep things from staff in the name of confidentiality is necessary, but only in a very few instances.  The rest of the time it is just unnecessary and can foster suspicion and mistrust in teams.  Another trap is decision making, often managers can fall into the trap of turning every potential decision into a democracy. They employ the opinions and viewpoints of as many people as they can, offering choices here and there and subsequently protracting the whole process.  Sometimes it is better just to make the bloody decision, if you get it wrong then correct it, learn from it, but by all means just get on with it!  They also mention a tactic of hiring only junior staff, which is a way of protecting their own value, not wishing to hire people who are more skilled than they are has a direct link with poor delegation too, if a manager holds onto everything, then the unnecessary pressure they self inflict can lead to eventual burnout. Far better to employ experts in their specific field and manage them through the process of key objectives, task delivery, and team inclusion, even if the manager is short skilled in that area.  The skill specific needs can be fulfilled through effective training and development if needed.

The issue I often witness is that many employees never tell their manager how they are feeling, and managers do need to be ‘managed’.  They need to have feedback or in real words a conversation on how they are doing as a manager. Not in a ‘fishing for compliments’ kind of way, although they should be told when something is right, laws of human robotics and all that, but in a constructive 360 way. Employees are very good at taking from the manager, and expecting them to have all the answers, but they don’t.  Now whose expectations are not real? It is important on occasion to sit down with your manager and tell them about how they manage you. The bollocky management term here is ‘managing up’.  Let them know what you like and what you don’t, what works and what doesn’t and most importantly why.  Make sure you evidence examples too, showing the resulting behaviour and work to reinforce the message; this all makes for a healthier relationship.  Of course, this does not give you carte blanche to be insubordinate, remember your place and show some restraint and it goes without saying that you keep your emotions in check too, slowly, steady catch a monkey and all that.

A Ramble on Respect.

It is this type of feedback that can transform a manager from being simply that, a manager, or a boss or the nirvana, a leader.  It is firm belief of mine based on what I was told from a mentor years ago, that the difference between a boss and a leader is that you will work for a boss, and give your heart and soul to a leader.  It is about following them and being led.  Often managers think they are leaders but are actually just holders of the management badge, nothing more.  It comes down to that old chestnut ‘respect’. The old cliché that respect ‘is earned and not given’ rings in my ears, but often managers cannot really define what respect actually is. Arguably all a manager wants is for their people to happy, and get the job done, but that alone doesn’t foster respect. Respect is defined as ‘a feeling of deep admiration or due regard for someone, elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements.’  I have a friend who has in the last year taken over my local gym. He is brilliant, transformational actually. In terms of management and his approach, he just gets it.  He has the respect of all of his staff. How? Well he is tough, but actually gets right in there, getting his ‘hands dirty’ running his own classes, supporting his trainers by participating in their classes, listening to the members and offering unbridled support and opportunities to the self employed personal trainers that use the gym for their clients.  It is this behaviour which makes him a champion leader and if you break down what I have written about him, it can be distilled into, leading by example, listening, supporting, offering opportunities and ultimately setting the tone.  The difference to the gym compared to previous managers is very noticeable both from an internal and external perspective. However when you are there and you witness trainers working with their clients, big classes taking place in the studios, the weights-area full, all machinery being used and general buzz about the place, you cannot help but think this is what ‘success’ looks like.  As leader, he has created this; he makes his own weather and a bloody good climate it is too.

The David Brent/Michael Scott Manager

So why is it that many managers struggle? Well a lot of it has to do with attitude.  They have their hearts in the right place, but the way they communicate can come over a bit ‘David Brent’/’Michael Scott’ (depending on which side of the Atlantic you might be reading this from). Their actions as managers are exaggerated, praise if given is over-done and cringe inducing, reprimand is laced with sarcasm and anger, and delegation is nothing more than cheap rank pulling.  These types of manager can feel very insecure, wanting to do their best, but really needing a mentor to step in and guide them. Their skill is in task management, not people management. The management feedback I mentioned earlier may not be fully appropriate with this type of manager as they lack the emotional intelligence element of ‘empathy’ and ‘self awareness’ to be able to look at themselves objectively and so there is a danger of them becoming defensive and the conversation may not be constructive. Only feedback from their direct line manager can help, however as I have often witnessed, the managers of these managers display the same character traits which the new manager emulates and copies, thinking them correct, even if they too feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of it!  Therefore the problem is not easily rectified and resorting to extreme measures, such as HR intervention through a grievance procedure might be the next step.  Oh and no, quietly creeping up behind them at their desk, and bringing a large piece of IT equipment down on their heads in rage is not the answer. It invalidates the warranty. Just in case you were thinking of that as an option.

Leadership. Hmmm

Managers are often encouraged to strive to be leaders, with comparisons made to big names, celebrity managers and captains of industry. The definitions of leadership are well documented, but I want to just stop a second and slow things down and ask a question.  In some situations do we actually need leaders, when good management would be enough? (Somewhere management/leadership coaches are screaming!)

The problem is, if you create comparisons between leaders and managers, the expectations change and are not immediately realistic, or achievable. To start how can someone compare his or her own role to one of these big names? Yes I get the fact that people like to aspire and grow, but is it not important to get the foundation right first, and maybe use examples of good leadership that are closer to home?

Many years ago a TV show on leadership that said that all great leaders require a ‘sliver of madness’ and in a recent book, that great leaders have the ‘psychopath’ tendency. Well that may be the case, but I have found that these ‘leaders’ also attract people to follow and work for them who in turn are good managers, making the leader look great. Therefore, the leadership aspect is different to management. When you read about some of these great leaders, their personal qualities are really not what you want in a manager, for example shyness, isolated, depressive, maverick or aggressive.

A viewpoint from an employee perspective is that there are those people who actually don’t want to be led; they just want to know that their manager is there, that is enough for them. Do their job, do a bit more when needed, go home, have a life. It should also be mentioned that some managers do not see themselves as leaders either, feeling that it is in some way egotistical to make that claim, and so they simply become great at management. Flip the coin and there are many managers out there who want to be, or even already consider themselves to be great leaders, they might well be, but some but actually demonstrate poor management skills, ergo you can’t be a leader without being a good manager first can you?

Oh and what about supervisors, do they make good leaders? Often put in place to oversee people’s day-to-day activities, and often closer to the ‘coal face’ than a manager the Supervisor role can be perceived as old fashioned, a shop steward, with the person working in a department store, factory floor or supermarket with a big bunch of keys attached to their waist, screaming militantly “everybody out” when a trade union is close by. Look closer at this role and actually it could be argued as being greatly aligned to the Leader role.  A Leader gets people to follow, so does the Supervisor due to its proximity to the workforce.  However overall responsibility is often not afforded to the Supervisor; that goes to the Manager.  Funnily enough though, when things go wrong it is the Supervisors fault, and if things go right then they were lucky! With the Manager taking the credit in some cases. So a leapfrog of position happens, the supervisor is closer to the leader in terms of ability and style, and the manager sits in the middle. Yet in career progression terms you can be required to move through all three. Perhaps it is worth looking at structures in companies and the reasons why some middle managers are removed due to their ineffectiveness.  As with customer service, there are touch points where things happen, as there are with Staff and Supervisors, Managers and Leaders. It is I guess about defining which is most useful to which part of a company.

Give ‘Em a Break then or Give ‘Em Hell?

Employees come in lots of different guises and flavours, I have managed lots of different types of people, and looking back there were times where I was clearly the wrong person to give the manager role too, but I was ambitious, so it felt like the right thing.  It was important for me to keep everyone happy, wanting to keep the status quo whilst at the same time being a complete disciplinarian about process and procedure. Water and Electricity do not mix so why should these extremes? In retrospect you can’t do both with out the metaphorical ‘rubber boots’ of experience to protect and inform you, and for me that came later.

There are employees out there who choose to make the life of their manager difficult. It could be that they are looking to catch them out, or that they just want to see how far they can be pushed. There are employees who want to be their managers best friend, always making huge in roads with a view that if they are being super friendly then it will be harder for them to be strict and therefore they can get away with a bit more. Of course this type of employee needs to be handled carefully, let them get too close and when the manager needs to be strict, the employee can become resentful and upset team dynamic.  Then of course you have the employee who just wants a quiet life, to be left alone to get on with job. It is easy to fall into a rut with this one as they are happy (or not) just left as they are, so overlooking them and indulging them can be detrimental in two ways. First the employee could end up feeling neglected if their hard work is ignored and second the manager could be accused of favouritism to more self-promoting employees.  Of course there are times when employees can behave in the most horrible ways. As a coach I have heard some stories.  Tales of abuse both mentally and physically going on, teams ganging up on managers or not ever speaking to them, pulling sickies, choosing to engage only when necessary.  Now any manager who comes up against any of these behaviours needs to handle it quickly, getting support from their own manager and other departments.

Whilst there is no magic formula, I have, however, always likened good management to good customer service.  If you see the people who work for you as customers, who in turn are expecting the best in management practice, process and communication, then it keeps things in focus. The resulting good management delivers the similar types of advocacy you see in customer service, if you get it wrong, then your employees will definitely talk about it to others, so you need to strive to get it right.  One way to get things into perspective is to create a charter of management. A promise if you will to deliver on the fundamentals of managing people.  This charter can be divided into sections, linking together certain sections E.g. Motivation and Understanding people, Goal Setting and Team Morale, Performance Reviews and Reward Mechanisms.  By linking together these aspects you can forge some really great practices that your team will respond positively to when things go well, and when things do not go so well, and lets be fair, life is not perfect and it won’t, then you have some good processes to fall back on, a tool kit if you will.  If you add this with proper objective setting with agreed goals and dates for completion, and understanding of the bigger picture and how they contribute together, with a healthy dose of recognition and thanks, this will hopefully reduce the amount of hell you get from any employee, as they will feel listened to, part of something, appreciated and developed.  Conversely from an employee perspective, it goes without saying that you should be courteous to your manager; they are there in that position legitimately, regardless of what you might think.  It is important to take a higher standpoint if you fall into conflict or if things are not going well.  Be polite, keep focussed on your own role, avoid politics and keep control of your emotions. Treat your manager as a fellow human being, after all if you take away the business card that is what you are left with. Managers are people too. There is a meerkat somewhere saying “simples”!

To conclude this ramble…

The subject of management behaviour is much broader than this little blog, and there are a number of great websites to visit that cover lots of different observations that can show managers up as poor or good and how these behaviours affect the culture of a company, large and small.  If you look through my tweets you will find three specific ones posted on Sunday 27th October that highlight just this.  You might also like to read work around culture and change; Barbara Senior and Edgar Schein are authorities.  One of the best management process books is The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard, simple and elegant it just works. Finally for a common sense, easy to apply approach look at John Adair’s Action Centred Leadership.  It addresses three key areas, the task, the team and the individual. Darryl Connor wrote “Managing at the Speed of Change”, truly insightful.

It is my belief that managers often bring on a lot of the problems they face with staff on themselves, choosing to treat people as usable commodities and forgetting that they are actually just people. In the same way, I also believe that employees can cause managers no end of problems as they can behave in a way that brings out the worst in people.  As we move more and more into a world where people cry “you are disrespecting me” I can only imagine that things will get more litigious for companies as employees make more complaints and grievances.

Management training is easy to come by often delivered by people with great intentions, but in real life, just doesn’t translate.  Good management training, usually experiential, however is rare, so what is the solution?  Sadly there isn’t one. There is no silver bullet.  Managers need to network more and talk to each other too, not sit in silence; sharing experiences can often halve a problem.  Look to social media to create and establish contacts. As long as people are born with individual differences the one-size fits all approach will not work. You can take every management technique in the world, apply to some and it might stick, but to others it will just slide off.  New and experienced managers and their employees must communicate more, find out about each other, understand perspectives and build good, robust relationships that are not afraid to respectfully challenge each other in order to flex and grow. You see, there is that respect word again, not used in isolation as it often is in management, but in conjunction with other behaviours, which is really where it belongs.

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